A plugged up sink, shower, or tub drain sends most people running for either a bottle of caustic drain cleaner or a plumber’s phone number. But wait. Unclogging a drain could well be a job you can do yourself successfully without chemicals or a big bill.
Assess the situation
Turn on taps to allow water down other drains in the house. If everything else is flowing freely, you can be fairly certain you have a localized clog—and probably near that clogged drain’s opening.
If this is involving other drains, you could have a bigger problem that may well require a professional. Assuming it’s only the one drain, let’s move on.
Get a large pot and boil up as much water as it will hold*. Now carefully and slowly, pour boiling water down the drain in two to three stages so that the hot water can work for a few minutes in between each pour. This is the easiest and quickest way to unclog a drain if it works, which usually it does with a satisfying swoosh.
*Or fill the pot with your very hottest tap water if you are dealing with a very old porcelain sink and/or PVC pipes, in which case there’s a slight chance that boiling water could cause damage.
Pour 1/2 cup of Blue Dawn detergent (no substitutes for best result) into the drain. For tough clogs, use a full cup.
While that sits, bring a half pot of water (about 4 cups) to boil. Pour this into the drain slowly but steadily to avoid getting burned by splashing water. Next, run water down the drain to check how freely water flows through.
If the clog remains or seems to be clearing, but the drain is still slow-running, repeat the boiling water step until the drain runs free.
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Baking soda and vinegar
Measure out 1/3 cup baking soda and get as much of it down the drain as you can. Follow with 1/3 cup white vinegar. It will fizz up and make quite a show. Allow it to sit for at least an hour, or overnight if at all possible. In the morning, follow with a quart or two of boiling water. You will be tempted to overdo it with the baking soda and vinegar. Don’t.
Remove the strainer that is part of the drain plug, then reach into the drain with your fingers (latex gloves would be a good idea here) and pull out any solids. As gross as this might be, it is often all that’s needed to clear a slow-moving or clogged drain.
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This simple tool is flexible enough to allow you to push it down into the turns of the drain. It has teeth along each side that once you’re in and you twist it, you’ll be able to pull out all manner of drain offenders. Keep working at it, until you pull out as much as you can. Now run the hot water and that should clear things up nicely.
A reader introduced me to Zip It years ago. At about five bucks, this handy dandy tool is worth its weight in gold. It’s great to clear drains, but also works well to maintain drains before they get clogged.
If you have a wet-dry vacuum, it just might help you to clear the drain without having to get your hands dirty. First, set it to “wet” so it vacuums liquids. Cover or close the drain’s vent. Make the tightest seal you can with the hose end of the vacuum over the drain.
Get creative with duct tape or the like. With the vacuum set to its most powerful setting, it can be powerful enough to pull that clog right out of the drain. Don’t forget to clean the vacuum tank!
While I offer no guarantees because not all clogged drains are created equal, attempting to clear a clogged drain yourself first—before spending money or just living with it until you have a major disaster—is certainly worth a shot.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve successfully cleared a stubborn clogged drain—especially in a bathroom sink or shower—by first using my trusty Zip-It, followed by the Blue Dawn and boiling water trick. Seriously awesome!
First published: 1-29-19; Updated 10-27-20